USNMT forward Clint Dempsey talked with the Spurs recently:
Tell us about your childhood, did you always want to be a soccer player?
Growing up I didn’t know what I wanted to be, my mom said that when I was really young that I wanted to be a priest. But I didn’t know what I would do. I loved playing sports, football and as I grew up there was a league in the States and I thought maybe I could do that. I went to college but, who knows, maybe I would have been a carpenter like my dad if I’d have stayed in Texas but playing the sport that I played allowed me to leave the city where I grew up, leave the state, leave the country and to see different parts of the world that I might not have gotten the opportunity to do if it wasn’t for football.
What made your mother think that?
I don’t know. I guess I had a big heart. I was a mamma’s boy, we had a big family, we stuck together and I guess I was a loving kid. Family was important to me when I was growing up. Maybe because of that, maybe that’s why she thought it. But it’s one of those things that you don’t always know where it comes from sometimes.
How did you get into soccer?
It was just something I enjoyed playing, I was good at it and the opportunity came to be in the fifth grade to go and play club football in Dallas. That was three hours from where I lived and my parents were taking me to the trial and seeing what it was like and I ended up making the team. I was probably 11-years-old, they had to figure out that if I was going to do that I had to give up all the other sports. Football was what I loved to do the most, it’s a continuous game, not a lot of stoppages and scoring a goal couldn’t compare to anything else. I’d scored touch-downs in American football, I’d hit home runs in baseball but for me scoring a goal was the best feeling. I knew in fifth grade that’s what I wanted to do, that I wanted to put my eggs in one basket because we didn’t really have like college funds set-up. It was like a lottery-ticket type thing: ‘alright, you are going to Dallas in the hope that a coach might see you and if they see you then you might have a chance of a college scholarship that way’. And that’s the way we did it and we were lucky in that there were teams able to help us out financially because it was difficult – driving back and forth, the price of gas, the food and all that kind of stuff and the drain it had on my parents because one would make the trip one week and then the other would do it the next week and it would take time away from the other kids in our family. My parents gave us all a chance to accomplish our goals and I was blessed with that, I was lucky with that and I learnt at a very young age that anything less than my best wasn’t acceptable because of all the sacrifices everyone else was making. So at a young age that was something I was aware of and pushed me to be better. I hope I can do the same for my kids, I hope that I can give them the opportunity to follow their dreams. At the same time my parents saw that I was putting the work in, that I was justifying their support. If I was doing the wrong things then it would have been a slap in the face for them but they could see that it was what I really wanted to do and I was very appreciative of everything they did for me. I was blessed.
Did you feel pressure?
There was pressure because you wanted to do something with your life. When I was in 10th grade that was when they started to look at the college coaches. You wanted to go to school and get it paid for because I knew that my parents wouldn’t be able to pay for it. So, I got a full grant to Firman University and from there I went to the MLS. The way that I went about it, I didn’t grow up in a big city that had a good level of football for me so I had to drive out for hours to get that but in the sense of a lot of good players trying to make it they go through the club ranks and if you are good enough you are going to make it. Some players will go to school and then play with the national team and stay down there and get the best level of training possible. But I never made the national set-up until I was a freshman in college, I made the U-20 pool and then I didn’t make the full national team until my rookie season in the MLS and then at the end of the season it allowed me to get a call-up and get my first cap. I guess it was different in the sense of the distance I had to travel to make my goals a reality and the sacrifices I made. Everyone makes sacrifices and I don’t want to say I had the toughest road possible because everyone takes their own path. Yeah, it was tough. Yeah, it was financially difficult for my family and put a strain on it, a strain on my parents but I was lucky that I had parents who were prepared to sacrifice so much for their kids.
What about your siblings?
They all graduated college, I am the only one who hasn’t, I still have two years left. At some stage I’d like go and finish school when I’m done playing and I go back to the States. It would be good to go to school or take a course without that pressure of ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ You can actually sit and listen to the information in a different way. You can just go there and take it in and it would be more fun. My sister she’s married with a kid and is happy. My younger brother is married with two kids – and is still trying to figure out what he wants to do. My older brother – he’s done a bit of everything. He played a bit, semi-pro, and was a writer for a bit. They’ve all had a platform. I think my parents can hold their heads high knowing they gave their kids the best chance possible to succeed. They are proud of me but they know there’s more that I want to accomplish and they know it never stops. In the summer you can sit back and smell the roses a little bit more but during the rest of the year they know I’m working hard to try and take advantage of the opportunity and make up for lost time. My professional career got started when I was 21, so I was a bit late. Some of the other players started when they were 18. I didn’t play my first MLS game until I was 21. So I am kind of making up for lost time. I just want to be as successful as possible. I’ve played in two World Cups already and it would be good to play in another one. I’m at Tottenham and it’s about trying to qualify for Champions League. It’s a team that missed out on a technically last season, it was unlucky, so that’s a goal. It’s about playing as much as possible and having an impact on games.
The chance to play at Tottenham, was it a case of now or never?
Yeah, I felt that way. I’m not getting any younger and you want to play at the highest level possible in your career. I’ve always been one to take risks – if I didn’t I’d still be in MLS – but I’ve been lucky because I’ve played for two great clubs and now I’m onto my third. Going to New England Revolution and playing under Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner was awesome. They were very important in my development as a player. Going to Fulham and playing under five different managers and learning something from each one of them, you learn something from the two relegations battles, from finishing seventh, the highest position they have ever finished and also from getting to the Europa League Final so there are great memories from there and now it’s about doing something special with Tottenham.
What was it like for you on transfer deadline day?
It was very stressful because of what the situation had become. I just didn’t know what was going to happen and was waiting until the last minute, just hoping something would work out. I said a lot of prayers and I always felt my heart was in the right place during my time at Fulham. Things just kind of worked out the way they did and I wish it hadn’t ended the way it did. But I will always look back at my time there with a smile on my face because I have a lot of great memories and a lot of good things were done there. From the point at which I found the club to the point at which I left I felt we’d taken it to another level and that’s something else that I was proud of. It was difficult when I first joined Tottenham to then hit the ground running. It was about making up for lost time again because I hadn’t had a full pre-season under my belt. As soon as I came to Spurs I was away with the national team and when I came back I was still working on fitness to get it to the right levels. I think I had a bit of a slow start but I’m feeling more confident. It’s getting better but I want to do better. I’m still pushing to be the best that I can be and try to help the team to do well.
Can you pick out a key moment in your career?
I feel every period has been important. If I hadn’t had a good first season at MLS then I wouldn’t have broken into the national team and by not having a good second season I could have fallen off the radar. And then I got the move over here to Europe, to Fulham, and then in my first six months, in 12 games I scored one goal so it was a bit of a slow start. But I had to take advantage of the opportunity and to be a success. It wasn’t easy. Every year was the most important because if you are not taking care of business and not doing well then you would fall by the wayside.
When you first started playing in the MLS, the United States were not renowned for producing top players. Did that make it extra difficult for you to get noticed?
I don’t think you can be as good as the person next to you, you have to be that much better to play. You want the best players out there possible to play but people also want to see players from their own country doing well. Of course they do. I did feel it was difficult to prove to people as an American that we do have qualities – other than playing in goal! That’s a position for which we have respect for with the keepers we have produced. But it’s been harder with outfield players. There’s been guys like Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Lewis, guys who have done well, but it’s about more players coming over and achieving at the highest level with the big clubs. I don’t think a lot of Americans get the benefit of the doubt in their own country. You have a lot of foreign players coming over and taking the spots. But it’s about making the best team possible as well as trying to make the best of homegrown talent. It was frustrating growing up because you almost felt it was against you too in your home league. To be honest with you it wasn’t until after I played in the World Cup (in 2006 in Germany) that I saw the real big picture. That was when I decided I didn’t want to re-sign with the MLS and did want to come to Europe. It’s not until you can see that big picture sometimes that you realise what’s out there. I’m a competitor and I want to play against the best players possible and see how I match up. People in the town where I grew up who would never have been into the game of football are into it because I came from there.
What do tend to get up to in the close season?
In the summer, I’m not really out and about much. I go bass-fishing. All the time. It’s what I grew up doing. To us a good vacation was to go camping. You camp, have a boat and go fishing early in the morning. When you’re done doing that you come back and in the afternoon go knee-boarding, skiing, inner-tubing behind the boat and then in the evening you go fishing again. For me growing up that was awesome. So now in the summer I do that as much as possible. I keep it low-key. I travel the whole year so the last thing I want to do is to go traveling. It’s the balance of trying to follow your goals, chase your dreams but also be around family. Your family want you to follow your dreams but the moments that matter the most are with your family, your friends, and that’s what life is really about. They are the realest moments to me.